Q I purchased an aged gelding a few months ago, and I’m having a hard time picking up his feet. I’m sure he was trained to do it at some point, but he makes it a real chore for me every time I try to clean his hooves, not to mention for the farrier. How can I overcome this resistance for more willingness when it comes to handling his feet?
Janet Farrow, New Hampshire
A The average horse weighs 1,200 pounds; that’s 300 pounds per foot. Instead of trying to pick up 300 pounds, teach your horse to pick up his feet for you by using your horse’s natural tendency to seek relief. Repeat the steps I’ll outline here a few times a day, and your horse will begin to lift his feet for you, rather than you trying to wrestle with his resistance. Be sure to vary your routine by changing which feet you start and end with every time.
The Front Feet
Begin with a positive interaction. With the lead in your left hand (or with your horse tied safely), quietly approach your horse’s shoulder. Bend down to rub his forearm and lower leg to indicate that he should relax and just stand there, with all four feet on the ground. Slightly hesitate that enjoyable massage so he notices that you’ve stopped.
Then move to the “raise your foot” cue (the “stimulus”). To do so, squeeze or twist your horse’s chestnut (the hoof-like growth on the inside of his forearm). It’ll make him just uncomfortable enough to cause him to lift his foot. The precise moment he does, go back to rubbing on his leg as a reward.
Repeat that process over and over again: Rub, hesitate, stimulate, and then go back to rubbing as soon as your horse lifts a foot.
Pretty soon, your horse will start to get what you’re after. “If I lift my foot when she hesitates, she doesn’t bug me by twisting my chestnut. I just have to unweight my foot when she stops rubbing.”
Repeat the same process on the right front leg.
The Hind Feet
You’ll follow a similar process when you work on your horse’s hind feet. Use a quiet approach, and then bend down and rub your horse’s leg. Slightly hesitate before moving on to the stimulus.
On the hind leg, you’ll squeeze his bursa at the cap of his hock. If you have trouble finding it, straighten your own arm, and find that little sack at the point of your elbow; it feels the same on his hock. When you put pressure on that area, your horse should lift his foot, at which point you’ll cease the pressure and go back to rubbing. You can also use his coronary band as the stimulus on the hind foot.
The key here is that pressure motivates and release teaches. After a few repetitions with correctly timed releases, your horse will put together that to avoid the pressure, he should unweight his foot when you hesitate after rubbing.
One Caution: Horses That Kick
Horses kick out of fear or dominance. The best way to solve that problem is to teach him that having his legs handled isn’t a big deal. Massage your horse’s legs, hose them off after a hard riding session, wrap them with care, etc. You might have to teach your horse to tolerate it at first, with lots of repetition, but he’ll learn to enjoy it. n
Pat Parelli and his wife, Linda, are the founders of Parelli Natural Horsemanship and present major seminars and demos around the world. Learn more about their philosophy and check their schedule of presentations at parelli.com.